Saturday, January 12, 2008

Strange Bedfellows

"November" at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, January 5, 2008

David Mamet's latest play "November" has begun performances with Nathan Lane playing an incumbent president on the verge of losing his re-election bid. The jokes begin early with plenty of less-than-veiled references to the current situation in US politics. (Spoiler Alert)

Taking place late in the week before election day, there's an unpopular war in Iraq, instigated by this now unpopular (and presumably Republican) President Charles Smith (Mr. Lane). His Chief of Staff, Archer Brown (Dylan Baker) quickly summarizes the source of his issues, "You've f****d up everything you've touched."

President Smith's unseen campaign director Barry has already given up the ship and headed to Nantucket to ride out the aftermath. His head speech writer, Clarice Bernstein (Laurie Metcalf) has just returned from adopting a Chinese girl with her partner, their new child and the flu. Smith demands her presence despite her illness in a last-ditch effort to save his legacy. A Representative of the National Association of Turkey By-Products Manufacturers (Ethan Philips) has arrived with two turkeys in tow for Smith to provide the annual "pardon" for this year's Thanksgiving at a press conference to be held the next day. Seizing on the opportunity, Smith demands the Turkey Association to increase their donation from $50,000 to $200,000,000. When they balk, he attempts to discredit the consumption of turkey at the original Thanksgiving in favor of tuna ("Isn't the Indian word for codfish pronounced "toona?"). He then insults the head of one of the Indian nations, after declining the chief's request for the island of Nantucket on which the Indians would build a 2000 bed hotel and gambling casino in exchange for endorsing the "toona" story.

Clarice drafts a quite moving speech in her feverish state, then demands that Smith marry her to her partner before she gives him the speech to deliver, during the press conference when he pardons the turkeys. Her plea unwittingly convinces Smith to try to win the election using the money from the Turkey Association.

So there it is, gay marriage, the war in Iraq, Native American relations and a threat of bird flu all peppered with enough racial and politically incorrect insults to make you think it was by Mel Brooks, except for the missing bathroom humor. There are plenty of funny moments in this evening of one-liners (Smith: "I always thought I'd do something memorable. I assumed it would be getting impeached."), and the energy of the production is good. Mr. Mamet's use of the "f" word as his go-to adjective is as faithful as ever in this play, though he hasn't matched the 12.5% penetration high water mark he set early in his career with "American Buffalo." Still, it felt a bit like a sitcom love-child of NBC and HBO, dragged out in 2-act form. Some trimming would be in order to the tune of about 25 minutes plus the intermission.

Mr. Lane is in his most Gleason-esque form here, rubber-faced and chewing up the remarkably beautiful Oval Office set by Scott Pask. He's got all the great tricks at hand, telephone calls and asides. Mr. Baker is suitably obsequious, playing straight man to Mr. Lane's antics. Ms. Metcalf's Clarice is passionate and real, despite some of the stereotypical dialogue provided by Mr. Mamet.

Joe Mantello directs, keeping the play moving appropriately apace.

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